Environmental Stewardship: Ranchers are tending to more than the livestock that grazes the prairie
Montana ranchers Craig and Conni French received the Leopold Conservation Award in 2020 for the work they are doing on their Malta, MT ranch. The Frenches started changing their stewardship practices after they realized the health of their cattle was directly related to the health of the soils and grasses they were grazing on. About six years ago they started changing their way of thinking, implementing grazing practices instead of harvesting hay, and changing the way their livestock would gather for water or warmth.
The changes on their ranch have introduced willow trees back to the banks of Beaver Creek which runs near their ranch, improved habitats for four species of grassland birds and sage-grouse, and opened up new opportunities to share their conservation efforts with federal and state agencies as well as other ranchers.
The French family plans to create a demonstration site for soil health and cover crop benefits that they can share with others.
Farmers and ranchers across the nation have been focused on land stewardship and conservation for centuries.
In the agricultural industry, land stewardship and environmental conservation are topics that have most likely come up more than once. Without the land, farmers and ranchers wouldn’t have a product to produce, which is why they prioritize soil health, prairie land conservation, and overall land stewardship.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association saw the need to recognize ranchers with good stewardship practices nearly 30 years ago. The Environmental Stewardship Awards Program (ESAP) has been recognizing cattlemen throughout the nation who are ‘protecting the environment and even improving the land’ according to the NCBA website.
“We did all that before sustainability and environmental impact was cool,” said Collin Woodall, CEO of the NCBA during a Cattlemen to Cattlemen special.
NCBA’s Colin Woodall says the NCBA recognized how important it was to recognize producers who are stewards of the land while running profitable cattle operations.
Woodall says the NCBA recognized how important it was to recognize producers who are stewards of the land while running profitable cattle operations. According to Woodall, ESAP serves two purposes: to give cattlemen a platform to share their successes and to protect and advocate for the ag industry in Washington, DC.
“The ESAP Program showcases that we are part of the solution and not part of the problem,” said Woodall in regard to environmental discussions on Capitol Hill.
Past recipients of the ESAP award see the power in having a platform to share their stories with government agencies and consumers alike. Jerry Dolan, a North Dakota cattleman and 2016 ESAP winner, says it is the consumer who is demanding programs like ESAP.
During a Cattlemen to Cattlemen special, Dolan said he is sharing his family’s story to improve the perception of all cattlemen.
“Perception becomes reality, whether it is right or wrong,” said Dolan. “We don’t have to stand back and let the bad publicity go, we can all tell our story.”
The NCBA is not the only organization with program incentives for land stewards either. The Leopold Conservation Award Program ‘recognizes agricultural landowners actively committed to a land ethic’ according to the mission statement on the Sand County Foundation website. Since 2003, different agricultural producers across the nation have been recognized for their commitment to the land and programs they implement into their operation.
The French family is also involved in the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA), a rancher-led conservation organization that works to strengthen rural communities, economies, and cultures. RSA was founded in 2003 by 30 Montana ranch families who wanted to resolve the common problems they had. In 2005, RSA became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission to keep communities alive with ranching and conservation.
The French family is also involved in the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA), a rancher-led conservation organization that works to strengthen rural communities, economies, and cultures.
Ranchers Stewardship Alliance really evolved in 2017 when the Montana Fish and Wildlife Services agency was in attendance of a meeting and informed board members that they could qualify for grant money. With the help of state agencies and a biologist who was willing to write a grant proposal, the RSA formed a conservation committee and obtained a grant.
“We have just put in for our fifth grant since then and we have impacted 38 families so far,” said Sheila Walsh, RSA Secretary, and Conservation Committee Chairman.
With the four grants RSA has received since 2017, they have helped restore or enhance 50,000 acres of grazing land and exceeded a $3.3 million positive impact on the local economy.
The RSA Conservation Committee consists of about 12 different agencies including Pheasants Forever, NCRS, and MSU Extension just to name a few. Biologists do most of the boots-on-the-ground work in projects, seeing opportunities for range improvements and bringing the project anonymously to the committee. The committee looks at project criteria; is the project in a high sage grass priority area, fish and wildlife conservation area, or big game winter range area? Based on questions like these and more, the project gets points scored and ranked with other proposed projects. Projects are then ranked on best-matched opportunities and the RSA tackles different projects at a time.
Walsh says many of the projects RSA works on are CRP lands coming out of contract and helping ranchers develop them into grasslands. They help build fences, re-seed the land, and implement water sources to build better habitats and stronger ecosystems. RSA helps ranchers implement new grazing practices, and lends a hand to young or first-generation ranchers as well.
“The reason we’re doing this is to help bring young ranchers back to the ranches,” said Walsh, “It helps them put more dollars in their pocket to survive and stay in these communities.”
RSA is a non-profit and not a government program. For all RSA projects, funding goes through RSA, even if separate entities kick in money. This means ranchers will never have their hands tied in government paperwork or waiting on funding.
Not only does the RSA help local ranchers with projects based on a match data set criteria, but they also provide local ranchers and community members with educational opportunities and workshops.
“Ranchers are busy and we don’t always have time to travel,” said Walsh, “if we can bring (workshops) to their back door maybe they can come and learn something new.”
Organizations like RSA are giving ranchers a platform to share their story with consumers, and demonstrating that they are part of the solution when it comes to environmental changes. Walsh says RSA has recently put more effort into sharing the stories of ranchers they have impacted, and some of those stories have made it to Washington, DC. Walsh is hoping their mission is making an impact, and maybe influencing some of the things happening on Capitol Hill.
“We’re fighting for the rancher to stay on the land,” said Walsh, “we are just another organization to help do that.”
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